If the English Riviera sounds like a gimmicky slogan drummed up by a tourist board, a bracing walk along the clifftops of Torquay should put you right – especially when the sun creeps out from behind the clouds and bathes everything in brilliant light. Brushing past palm and pine trees rustling in the sea breeze, and peek-worthy back gardens of gated houses and hotels (including a Victorian holiday villa built for the noble Russian Romanoff family), we eye yachts and cruise ships in the glistening Tor Bay below and glance down to London Bridge, a natural sea arch jutting from the limestone cliffs.
Although it's not as dramatic and balmy here, the scenery reminds us a little of France's Cote d'Azur and the Amalfi Coast of Italy, and we appreciate why Agatha Christie, despite all her fame and riches, and liking for exotic foreign locations, enjoyed a lifelong love affair with this slice of south Devon. The "Queen of Crime Fiction" was born in Torquay, the Riviera's largest town, in 1890 and schemed and set many stories locally. Indeed, I wonder which twists she contrived – and which quips she devised for her sleuths – while treading Torquay's heart-pumping clifftop trail, which is now a leg of the 1000 kilometre South West Coast Path and skirts by rugged Beacon Cove, where Agatha used to swim, and where fans follow suit each September during Torquay's annual, event-packed Agatha Christie Festival. No doubt this year they'll be sharing their opinions on Kenneth Branagh's new film version of Christie's Death on the Nile.
The cove nestles by the Imperial Hotel, which featured in Sleeping Murder, Christie's last published novel (1976), and stages regular murder mystery nights. So, too, does another storied Torquay hotel, The Grand, where Agatha honeymooned with first husband, Archie Christie, and has a suite named after her. You'll see a bronze bust of the author near Torquay's observation wheel, while the town's museum has a dedicated gallery displaying her personal effects with props from the Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot TV adaptations.
While Torquay isn't quite the fashionable resort it was in Agatha's pomp – and lacks the sun-soaked glamour of, say, Nice or Sorrento – the town is in the midst of a tourism boom, boosted by domestic staycationers whose usual Mediterranean getaways were thwarted by COVID-19. We're lucky to bag an al fresco table at popular Rockfish, a sustainable south-west seafood chain run by chef and cookery writer Mitch Tonks. Perched on the harbourfront near Michelin-starred Elephant, it has changing daily menus. Brill, gurnard and Dover sole are among today's offerings but we opt for Devon crab and local Lyme Bay mussels, pairing them with local craft ales and Loire Valley rose, respectively. Dinner is so delicious we're half-tempted to book a table for the following evening, too.
There's another Rockfish by the fish market at Brixham, the Riviera's bustling, characterful fishing port, a 20-minute drive from Torquay via Paignton. Cuttlefish, plaice, cockles, whelks, oysters and the like are served at Brixham's hodge-podge of eateries, including the shacks by the town's briny-aired waterfront, where raucous gulls nibble by tiny boats and larger trawlers and colourfully-painted houses sit on clifftops. We're also fond of Dartmouth, a prosperous town positioned where the River Dart meets the English Channel. Crossing the Dart on a car-pedestrian ferry, we see pleasure boats taking tourists upriver to Totnes, a historic but groovy market town with vineyards on its outskirts, and to Greenway, a gorgeous National Trust property and garden that Agatha Christie called the "loveliest place in the world". She bought it as a holiday home with her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, and apparently used to read her stories to family and friends here, asking them to guess "whodunnit".
Even lovelier, some would say, is Salcombe, an estuary town swaddled within the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. In the British Empire days, transatlantic vessels loaded with exotic fruits would dock here, and in the sunshine, Salcombe looks Caribbean-esque, with clear waters caressing yacht-dabbed shores and secluded white-sand coves protected by verdant, footpath-laced hills. Britain's most expensive seaside town to buy a home in – the average property price is almost £1 million ($1.9 million) – Salcombe has trendy cafes, upscale eateries, ice-cream vendors and nautical-flavoured pubs. Christie aficionados may wish to drive another half-hour further west and stay at the luxurious art deco hotel-retreat on tidal Burgh Island, which inspired her potboiler, And Then There Were None.
South Devon is just one portion of this unique county: the only in England with two coastlines and two national parks (Dartmoor and Exmoor). Like neighbouring, undulating Cornwall, Devon is ripe for road-tripping, especially when you swap the straighter main routes for the narrow country lanes that are typically hedged by sublime scenery and have more twists and turns than a Poirot yarn. We travel coast-to-coast via Dartmoor, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set his spooky Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Demonic beasts are elusive on our drive, but Dartmoor's contrasting landscapes have us gripped, from its rolling, gloriously green sheep-dashed fields to harsh, ancient granite moorlands.
You should break in idyllic Widecombe-in-the-Moor for Devonshire cream tea at the cafe by the village green, or lunch by the fire at the Rugglestone Inn, a pub in a converted farmhouse. On Dartmoor's northern edges, Castle Drogo is a mock-Gothic National Trust pile designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Completed in 1930, it's billed as the last castle built in England, and sits by one of Devon's many lushly-wooded gorges. More mood-raising and hiker-friendly valleys grace "Little Switzerland", a spellbinding area of Exmoor National Park near Lynton and Lynmouth. Good for fish and chips, scenic walks and gift-store browsing, these cute twin towns are linked by the world's highest and steepest fully water-powered railway, which has shunted passengers up and down the north Devon cliffs since 1890.
Another coastal charmer is Clovelly. Located in the wooded cliffs further east, where the Bristol Channel blends into the Atlantic Ocean, this time-warp harbour village gave its name to the Sydney suburb. Its car-free cobbled main street is lined with flower-bedecked cottages and tearooms and spirals down to a 14th-century stone quay that's particularly lively during the village's annual September crab and lobster festival.
North Devon has other pitstop-friendly seaside towns, such as Ilfracombe, and surf spots like Saunton Sands, where Robbie Williams shot his video for Angels. Brightly-hued huts fringe this near six-kilometre beach – the perfect place to stretch your legs and devise your own crime-fiction plot. Saunton appeared on Australian screens – on SBS earlier this year – in The Long Call, a TV drama adapted from Ann Cleeves' latest detective series. Creator of the award-winning Shetland and Vera sagas, Cleeves grew up in north Devon and her penchant for crafting engrossing page-turners – and for pulling the wool over readers' eyes – has drawn comparisons with you know who.
Qantas and Etihad are among the airlines that fly to London from Sydney and Melbourne. Arrange car hire from Heathrow.
A revived manor house close to Exmoor National Park, with a brasserie-style restaurant, Kentisbury Grange has deluxe rooms and contemporary lodges from around £110 ($204).See kentisburygrange.com
Torquay's Headland Hotel & Spa has double rooms from around £65 ($120). See headlandtorquay.com
Double-vaccinated travellers no longer require a test to enter the UK.
Steve McKenna's trip was supported by Visit Britain and Visit Devon.